I talked to Mark Del Franco about how he builds tension and suspense. According to his website, “Mark Del Franco spent several years in the publishing field in editorial and administrative roles and in the institutional finance field as a proposal writer. He currently is pursuing a freelance career in both these fields.”
“Mark Del Franco lives with his partner, Jack, in Boston, Massachusetts, where the orchids tremble in fear since he killed Jack’s palm plants.”
What his website bio doesn’t say is that Mark is an amazing guy and masterful at first-person suspense.
So, Mark, what do you do to build tension in a scene?
I find tension one of the harder aspects of writing because I know what’s going to happen. Sometimes the execution surprises me—the scene I envision does not always result in the scene that gets written—but the bottom-line is that it’s not tense for me in the same way it is for a reader. So what do I do? I try and be a reader as I write. The crucial point of tension is something has to be at stake that the reader cares about or at least believes the characters care about. For me, that means setting a scene first–the visuals and why it’s important. Then I layer in the idea of the success or failure being equally important—it’s not tension if the result is not in doubt. Last, the pay-off has to work credibly–if something resolves successfully, the reader must feel that I haven’t cheated to get there (for example, “Poof! she waved her magic scepter”) and if something resolves tragically, the reader must not feel I stacked the odds to an impossible height to make a plot point (for example, “everyone died, but now he had a reason for revenge”). These three things overlap, but they do happen for me in roughly this order.
Is it a “big bang shock” sort of technique for you or you more fond of the “take the reader down the dark and sinister hallway” approach?
I like both! Both techniques have their uses and achieve different goals. I think the big bang is an after-effect technique. The Bad Thing happens, and the tension derives from how characters have to deal with it. The dark hallway is more front-loaded—we know something is coming, so the goal is to face it and the tension derives from whether
the characters can prevent the Bad Thing. Both techniques, I think, are a test of character (in both senses of the word) that should make a reader care about what happens.
Do you think that it\’s easier to build tension in first or third person? And either way, as a reader (not as a writer) which do you prefer?
As a writer, I’ve been focusing on first person to date so I’m more comfortable with first (though a new novel I’m working on is in third). With first person, I have an easier time slipping behind my protagonists eyes and trying to imagine what would make things tense for me, then translating that to the page. I think this gives the reader a certain
immediacy to the tension, too. Third person is a broader kind of tension in that I’m trying to make things tense for the reader and the character in slightly different ways while telling one narrative. Right now, as I learn my way through third person writing (and every novel is a new learning experience), I’m feeling that third person makes a higher
demand for ensuring the setting tension is strong because the viewpoint is broader. As a reader, I respond more to first person tension. With third person tension, for some reason I tend to notice more the way scenes are crafted to create tension, but that may be due to the fact that third person has not been my main writing point of view so far.
If you think of suspense coming in different sizes (small, medium, super-ultra large) do you think it\’s best to alternate these or are you into the steady diet of massive (or tiny) suspenses in your book.
In a way, this is a broader issue of pacing and making decisions as a writer as to the type of book you want to write. My Connor Grey series tends to medium hits of tension that grow larger over the course of the novel until I hit the big one. That’s the pay off for myself and the reader—laying out a series of events that become more and more
perilous until Connor must make the big decision on how to act. With my new novel set in the Convergent World, I’m looking to create a faster pace–I want my main character, Laura, to be put through her paces and prove she’s as good as everyone thinks she is. So, I end up throwing a lot at her. That increases the pacing and the way to do that is those
steady hits of tension.
When you write do you think the nature of your suspense comes from your characters or from the plot?
As an urban fantasy writer that has focused on mystery, I hope the tension is in the plot! At the same time, I think (and hope) that there’s a level of character tension too since my main character learned he has feet of clay and is struggling to overcome that. How he becomes a better person–making mistakes along the way.
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